An interview with Gary Whalen, Editor, Pre-calculus & College Algebra, Cengage Learning. 

Do you remember your very first college math class? If you graduated from college more than 15 years ago, you probably used a calculator to complete your course work, along with scratch paper and a lot of pencils. And if you were working on Calculus homework late at night and reached an impasse, there was no one to call for hints or direction. If the course was a 6- or 8-week summer course, the issue was compounded by the fact that you did not have much time to grasp the basic concepts prior to the final exam. In the mid-to-late 1990’s, textbook publishers started to create digital resources that enabled students to complete their coursework on their personal computers and submit assignments via e-mail. Fortunately, the digital solutions that are available today for math learning and assessment provide students with instant feedback and 24/7 availability of solution videos and other resources, making it easier for instructors and students to maintain the ideal pace of the class, even for short summer courses.

Editor Gary Whalen has worked in the Math discipline area for over 26 years. He has helped to drive some of those technology changes, playing a key role in the definition and evolution of homework solutions for Math. Jeanne Heston caught up with him recently to ask him about the shift that occurred in the 1990’s and the technologies that enabled the shift to occur.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was it that first inspired the team to develop Enhanced Web Assign (EWA)?

Gary Whalen (GW): With the growth of the internet in the early 90’s, lab-based tutorial software gave way to online digital content. The company’s first foray into this area was “World Class Course,” which consisted of an online assignment management system that focused on quizzing and testing. Math, more than any other discipline, began to demand a system that would deliver online homework and tutorials. It was expected that any such system would “machine grade” student answers, thus providing immediate feedback. In 1999, we launched Brooks/Cole Assessment (BCA), with online quizzing, tutorials, and a basic grade book. Within four years, it had morphed into iLrn, with new features and a new design added along the way.

By the early 2000s, it was clear to us that the perceived value of the digital resources was at least equal to that of the book itself. We needed to ensure that we had the very best platform in place in order to meet and exceed the high expectations of our customers in the math discipline. In early 2006, we turned to John Risely [former CEO of WebAssign]. We determined that the WebAssign platform could handle math content, especially math notation and grading, provide access to tutorials, and provide instructors the features (e.g., grade book) necessary for managing online assignments. And, just as important, WebAssign could deliver the stability that the market demanded.

WebAssign was developed by faculty for faculty and students — to support a wide variety of exercise types. We realized that it was the only online homework system that could truly capture the “spirit” of a book via the varied problem types —  from exercises involving proofs to multi-part problems. Also, many math exercises can have several correct answers. WebAssign provides us with a system that looks for equivalent answers in grading students’ work. No other publisher has a system that provides such an important feature.

JH: Were there other technologies that Cengage Learning and other publishers offered prior to EWA and the technologies that you mentioned above, along with the books?  If so, what were the limitations of these products?

GW: In the late 80’s, two things changed the way math content was delivered — instructional video tapes and tutorial software — both designed for use in a “math lab,” tutorial center, or library. In the 90’s the primary technology was CD-based and typically involved having a tutorial CD bundled with a book. The CD often included some lecture videos, practice problems, and quizzes. Publishers continued to provide some type of networked software — a continuation of the tutorial software developed in the late 80’s. By “networked,” I mean the product would be provided for campus computer lab use. Usually the product would include some sort of mechanism that would track a student’s progress and provide a basic report. By the late 90’s, these two things — CDs and networkable software — gave way to online-delivered material. The primary limitations across all online homework/tutorial systems were originally slow Internet connections, lack of content, difficulty in using math notation, and connecting tutorials (e.g., videos) to assignments (e.g., quiz, homework).

JH: How do digital resources like EWA help instructors and students keep up with the pace of short 5- and 6-week courses, like those offered during the summer and in many programs designed to meet the specific needs of non-traditional students?

GW: EWA, and other homework and assessment solutions, provide students with instant grading on their coursework — to immediately know whether or not they grasp the concepts. EWA provides lecture videos, repeated practice of homework, review features, remediation, and other resources that are available 24/7, making it easier for students to make the most of their limited time. For instructors, EWA’s instant and accurate grading provides more time for lecture preparation and individualized attention, making it easier for an instructor to keep up with the fast pace of a short course.

JH: How do you typically determine which features should be part of each version of EWA?

GW:  We spend a lot of time on campus, speaking with instructors. Also, since the initial move to EWA, our learning consultants have provided us with a lot of feedback, based on their conversations with instructors. With their input, we’ve continually improved EWA. Additional features, functionality, and content offerings have been determined by benchmark studies (against competitors’ online systems), reviews, focus groups, and — sometimes — intuition. For homework and assessment solutions for Math courses, both quality and quantity matter! The more high-quality exercises, tutorials, and videos we provide, the more receptive instructors will be to the system. In addition to more and varied content, there are always requests for greater instructor control of assignment parameters and additional detail in student tracking.

JH: Have there been any surprises along the way?

GW: The problem-specific videos — accessed via the Watch It link in EWA — were actually inspired eight years ago by a student working on an assignment in a computer lab.  While trying to solve a difficult problem, she accessed a stepped tutorial exercise.  Apparently it wasn’t helping. She got mad, threw down her pencil, and said to the computer screen, “Just show me how to solve it!”  From that came the inspiration for simple problem-focused videos — video solutions — that accompany many of our online math exercises in EWA. At first, I created them for a couple of developmental math titles. Now we have thousands of such videos, all text- and problem-specific, spread across dozens of titles. Students love them!

JH: Where do you see digital learning and assessment resources for math courses going over the next several years?

GW: In the future, students will be able to use a slate or tablet, along with a stylus for all their homework — including the work that they now do on paper to solve math problems. There would be no need for math palettes or equation editors. The app would translate the handwritten notation to proper notation, “read” the mathematics on the screen, check the student’s steps, provide real-time feedback, and provide a just-in-time tutorial when it’s clear that the student is making a consistent error. As an example, the app would alert the student – and provide a tutorial about adding exponents – when it’s clear that a lack of understanding about exponents is the root cause of issues with pre-calculus homework. Of course, the learning resources would have to be device-agnostic so that all content — including animated graphs and simulations — could behave the same way across devices.

Do you use online homework and assessment solutions in conjunction with your Math course? How do you expect these resources to evolve over the next few years? We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below.